18 August 2010

Build a Mosque, Burn a Qur'an; Freedom is Sometimes Messy

While the most notorious outbreak of Islamophobia so far this year has been the protest movement against the construction of the Islamic community center popularly known as the "Ground Zero Mosque," that high-profile controversy has put the media on the lookout for other expressions of hostility to the religion of Muhammad. Potentially the most provocative expression of American Islamophobia is scheduled for the ninth anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks: a public burning of copies of the Qur'an by members of a homophobic evangelical church whose pastor proclaims that Islam is "of the devil."

It may confuse matters for me to play "devil's advocate" on this issue, but I want to go on record as endorsing both the erection of the mosque and the burning of the Qur'an. My opinion on the former issue is already known to Think 3 readers. As for the book-burning, I accept that the congregation should be punished if their action violates state or local laws, but I applaud the act on civil-disobedience principles. While I condemn critics of the Ground Zero Mosque for irrational sensitivity, Muslims still set the standard for irrational sensitivity worldwide, as is proven anytime anyone creates an image of Muhammad or says a critical word about him. Every time a Muslim threatens some infidel for violating the purported Qur'anic taboo against picturing the Prophet, I get into a punitive mood. Non-Muslims are not governed by the prohibitions of Islam; it's our prerogative to illustrate our accounts of Muhammad and to caricature him if we think he deserves it. We are no more to be constrained by the irrational sensitivity of Muslims on this point than the Muslim community-center planners are to be constrained by the irrational sensitivity of those flagrant perpetual mourners who identify the religion of Islam as the prime mover of the September 2001 attacks. The only remedy for irrational sensitivity is to get in the faces of the irrationally sensitive and make them get used to our right not to defer to their unreason. That means standing with Mayor Bloomberg against mounting opposition (now apparently including Governor Paterson) in support of the GZM, and it means affirming our right to thoughts and actions that may be provocative to Muslims, but are still within the prerogatives of free people. The Florida church's refusal to be intimidated by the threats of reprisal that have predictably appeared is probably the one indisputably admirable thing about their scheme. It's just unfortunate that this stunt is being perpetrated by a Christian church, not to mention a church of homophobic jackasses, because the congregation is bound to misunderstand what's wrong with the Qur'an. They condemn it because it deviates from the Bible and thus must be heretical or satanic. But the problem with the Qur'an is that it is just like the Bible, and if we have to stoop to book burning to force a point home about religious extremism we could just as well burn a Bible or a Torah, or any book of superstitions that drives believers to kill or simply hate non-believers. If Muslims feel a need to make reprisals if the book-burning takes place as planned, they'd have just as much right to burn Bibles as far as I'm concerned.

There is a widespread perception (probably shared by many Hindus as well as the predictable Christians and Jews) that Islam is a uniquely evil religion. Because Islam is a latecomer among the great religions, and because Muslims are relative latecomers to America, the religion and its believers are often pressured into proving their good will in a manner not demanded of other faiths and faithful. Here's an example of that attitude as expressed by Cal Thomas -- another Christian Islamophobe: "It isn’t America’s obligation to demonstrate our tolerance, as if by doing so those within Islam who wish to destroy us will ultimately transform into religious pluralists. It is their obligation to demonstrate their own tolerance in the face of much evidence of Islamic intolerance and violence by radicals." But if history forces Muslims to prove their worthiness of American liberty, history should impose the same obligation on Thomas's own faith in nearly all its denominational permutations. History also tells us that other newcomers throughout American history -- Irish Catholics, Italians, Chinese, etc.-- were challenged to prove their cultural or intellectual worthiness of American citizenship against charges that Catholicism, "Latin" culture, "Oriental" racial characteristics, and so on made them incapable of living as citizens of a republic. These nativist demands have always been proven unnecessary by the successful assimilation of immigrants within two or three generations of American life, and the capacity of Muslims for assimilation was not questioned by most people in this country before 2001. Nor has it always been controversial for Americans to accommodate Islamic customs. As Eugene Robinson points out, Ramadan was first observed at the White House by Thomas Jefferson in 1805 as a courtesy to a Tunisian ambassador. Robinson is right to suspect that a President showing the same courtesy today would be tagged as an appeaser by our modern Islamophobes.

It's one thing for us to respect the obligations Islam imposes on Muslims, and another when Muslims claim that their beliefs impose obligations on the rest of us. If respect for Muslims' regard for Muhammad must be weighed against respect for everyone else's right not to share that regard, the latter wins. If respect for a Muslim group's desire (innocent until proven guilty) to make a goodwill gesture in lower Manhattan must be weighed against respect for the indiscriminate grief of certain Americans, the former wins. There is an obligation to tolerate on both sides, and that's why both must be denied veto power over potentially offensive free expression. You don't trust Islam? If Muslims have a right to build on that property, too bad for you? You don't think Islam should be insulted? If Florida law allows a book burning, too bad for you, too. Neither of you have a right to dislike the other unless you acknowledge the other's right to dislike you, and neither of you can turn your dislike into law. That's the American way.


Anonymous said...

I wasn't aware that "liking" or "disliking" was a right.

Samuel Wilson said...

Try stopping someone, then. But if you prefer, the right is to hold a critical opinion of a group based on their beliefs and practices. For instance, I have a right to dislike Islam or the Republican party or (fill in the blank) based on what it preaches. This is the sort of right for which each person is his own guarantor.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it's more of a freedom than a right. But only because my definition of a "right" is part of the social contract. We support a specific government and, in return, that government guarantees certain "rights", ie behaviors or practices the citizens are allowed. "Hate" or "intolerance" aren't so much "rights" as they are a freedom. You are free to hate anyone or group, to be intolerant of any one or group, to love any one or group, etc.

Freedom, in my opinion, isn't a right granted by the government as much as it is a thing that government can't control or take away.

Samuel Wilson said...

That's a reasonable distinction. For my purposes in the original post "right" better conveyed the reciprocity civil society would seem to require. But the sort of judgmental attitude I refer to is probably best described as a prerogative, a freedom that becomes a "right" by virtue of your power to claim and defend it.